In the morning, my feet grow numbingly cold. Socks, thick socks, slippers, slippers and socks, those knock-off fur boots you buy at Payless – nothing defeats the chill that takes over my apartment between the hours of five and nine in the morning.
Now that the place is empty of any furniture — except for the hand-me-down rocking chair in the middle of the living room — the cold is almost unbearable. It’s almost as if the couch that doubled as a cat-scratching pole and the shaky bookshelf from Ikea gave this place all the warmth it ever knew. My feet curled underneath my crossed legs, one hand holds a steaming cup of chamomile tea and the other hand goes through a pile of old disposable photos — a balancing act.
For a while, the pile of photos seems like a slideshow of my high school memories. This is a familiar trip down memory lane, but this time, this particular morning, I don’t have time for it and I don’t care for it, either. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know this isn’t it. Morning’s sunlight is starting to pour through the window, slowly and carefully like the way you would pour milk into a full cup of coffee.
They say your subconscious can’t create a face on its own and that every person that holds space in your dreams is someone you’ve seen or interacted with before. This means that the strangers on the subway or on line at the post office or next to you at a concert could be walking every night in your dreams and you really wouldn’t know or remember it. I woke up this morning, in a sweat, wondering if the same rule applies for places. If every place I’ve visited while awake can follow me into my dreams and if my memory fails me during the day, maybe my night affairs can take me to places I’ve forgotten.
After going through a photographic stream of high school spirit week outfits and field trips to Six Flags, I start seeing myself shrink. I turn in my skinny jeans for floral dresses, my nose piercing for heart sunglasses, and my cellphone for a Barbie doll.
At last, I find it — a picture of the house I grew up in and the house I have been dreaming about every single night this past week whose address keeps running and slipping from the tip of my tongue. 23 Marsha Lane? 32 Marsha Lane? Or is it 33? I try every morning and inevitably, I am greeted with failure.
The photo captures my parent’s two greatest treasures, their first home and their first child. In all my glory, I smiled for the camera, hair in pigtails and posed next to Mami’s front porch garden.
When I was 9, I had pin-straight hair the color of honey and two missing front teeth.
Wind chimes on the porch blow in the morning wind. Downstairs, a teapot squirms noisily. Chocolo whimpers at the foot of my parent’s bedroom door for breakfast. Usually Mami is awake by now. I knock.
The open window in the hallway blows my frilly, Barbie pink nightdress and brings a round of goose bumps to my skinny, meatless arms. Chocolo looks up at me with an expression of disappointment. Silence swallows us both whole.
Ten minutes later, Chocolo is chopping away at his bowl in the kitchen. I’m making myself chamomile tea the way Mami taught me. Honey. Then, milk. Stir. Make sure the stove is off. I use the old and worn oven mitts to carry the teapot, even though the handle was already cool to touch. Just incase, like Mami always says.
“Just incase," she says as she locks every single window of our two-story house every night after dinner.
“Just incase," she says as she buys too many gallons of water because the morning news included warnings of a minor tropical storm.
“Just incase," as she hands me a pocketknife before I leave to school. I start following Mami’s morning routine.
I pull back the worn, sunflower-patterned curtains from the windows — the ones that use to decorate the only window in my parent’s one bedroom apartment in Queens. Papi picked them out from the local thrift store when I was first born. He said that he got Mami sunflowers for their first date and he didn’t want her to forget that.
I open the door to the backyard, let the airflow in and let Chocolo explore outward. I carefully, with a butter knife, cut bread from La Panaderia down the road and place it on our breakfast silverware. My favorite part of the kitchen — plates, bowls, and mugs with intricate drawings of herbs and flowers and their names. Mami hasn’t taught me how to burn oils or sage yet, she says I’m still too young, so I grab the candles from the living room and light those instead. I almost forget about Mami’s favorite part of the morning until Chocolo starts barking at the front door. By the time I get to the door, the mailman is gone and Chocolo has settled down from a good lap around the backyard and rests on his belly full of water.
Up until this point, nothing stopped me or alarmed me as I played Grown-Up. But, there was something about unlocking and opening our front door that made my stomach drop a few stories. The silence I faced, waiting for Mami to open the bedroom door earlier made it’s way back into the house in my moment of reluctance. And that same silence shook off my fear like a child shakes off their boots after a morning playing in the snow — hastily and full of urgency.
I step out of the front door, barefoot.
It’s late August and there’s this warmth that sticks to the air. For this reason, I’m grateful for the breeze that blows my hair off the back of my neck and makes my nightdress dance.
For only a second, I worry that the neighbors will worry if they see me. Out of the corner in my eye, I see a week'sweeks worth of newspaper in a pile at the foot of our porch. My heart races, I quickly gather the stack into my tiny arms, bring it inside and place it on our living room coffee table. I’ve never seen Mami throw out a newspaper before. I return back to the front porch and sigh with relief once that’s over with it.
The moment passes and then Mami’s routine continues. I breathe in the morning air once again. Pick up the newspaper, rip open the plastic wrapping and toss it into the garbage can where Papi ashes his cigarettes and Mami tosses junk mail. Peer into the coffee-containers-turned-plant-pots that surrounds the porch to see how dry they are from the night’s air.
“They need watering. Las plantas necesitan agua.” I say, in my best Mami voice. After I water the plants and make sure Papi’s pile of chopped wood is organized the way he likes it, I sit with my plate filled to the edge with more pan than Mami would let me eat on a Monday morning. I play whatever CD was already inside our radio. This morning it is Amy Winehouse. I run back into the kitchen to fill up my mug.
Pour more warm water into my tea.
Another bag of chamomile.
Only a splash of milk.
Mami always poured me too much milk, forgetting how I despised it. The same
way she would forget that I hate any kind of eggs, except scrambled eggs until she sat down a plate of unappetizing sunny-side-up eggs in front of me and I would scream, “Mami! You forgot again! I swear you don’t love me!”
She would always say: “Mija, don’t be silly. I’m sorry. I’ll make you scrambled eggs right now. I’ll give these a tu papa.” A kiss on the forehead would follow. A stroke of my hair if she felt particularly bad. The moment would then pass, all would be forgiven and Papi would have gobbled up Mami’s erroneous eggs with a smile.
Know you’re a gambling man. Love is a losing hand.
I sat on the porch with Chocolo’s head in my lap for a while. Swinging back and forth on the rocking chair Mami got from her father’s Mami, I watch the big oak tree shake and sway to the hum of morning. I flipped through the newspaper, pretending to be interested. I didn’t wear glasses, but Mami did and she would have her elegant, cat-eye frames sit on her nose as she read. Her big, brown hair would sit on her shoulders and she would always hold a finger to her temple.
As I flipped through it’s pages, I saw something about the war in Iraq, about the grand opening of a local restaurant and about that man who raped that 40-year old woman from our neighborhood. He was found guilty and was sentenced to 25 to life, according to today’s paper. Mami and Papi knew him through friends and friends. They all sat in the living room of our house that week we found out, sharing the pieces of el chisme that they had to offer.
Someone shouted that they heard he was framed.
Porque el es immigrante.
No, because he was robbing that poor lady!
Oiga a esa! Peor! Todo para la plata. For the money!
We all know we’ve been keeping our daughters away from him for a reason. Suficiente!
Mami ended the conversation there. She then retreated to the front porch, sat on her rocking chair and picked up the newspaper where she left it that morning. She continued her crossword as everyone in the living room continued the conversation in hushed tones to not upset her. The cold of night was settling in and I remember Papi sent me out with his big Christmas sweater he wore year round to give to Mami. She didn’t look at me in the eye when she said, “Gracias, mija.”
That night, Mami didn’t come back into the house until everyone left and by then, it was way past my bedtime. I remember pressing my ear against the wall that separated my room from my parents. All I could hear was Mami’s soft sobbing and my father’s muffled voice. Even after I crawled into bed I could still hear my mother’s voice, asking Dios for forgiveness for the things that men did to her as a child.
Memories mar my mind. Love is a fate resigned.
This was my favorite song on the CD and it was also Mami’s favorite song. When it ended, I got up from the rocking chair and restart it again. Chocolo would get up from his post and follow me each time, but eventually, he got lazy and I found the repeat button.
I had vivid memories of Mami, in her best black dress, all dressed up for the family parties that were always hosted at our house. She would walk around barefoot into the last minute, leaving her heels at the door for the moment when she would have to greet our first arrivals. I remember last New Year's Eve, she was putting out a plate of grapes on the coffee table. Papi was sitting on the couch, shining his shoes.
“Carlos,” she said to him, extending her arm in his direction. He looked up at her, standing there as hopeful and young as ever. He paused for a second and eventually he gave her a smile. Oh, what a mess we’ve made. I remembered the view from the top of the staircase. I remember being shocked when Papi didn’t groan or put up a fuss. Instead, that night, he got up and danced to Mami’s favorite Amy Winehouse song on repeat until the doorbell rang, signaling that the guests had arrived and their private moment — our private moment was over.
I feel safe here, on the front porch and in this rocking chair. Amy’s voice is like honey dripping on my fingers and in this chair, it feels like Mami’s arms are around me. After what felt like hours, I finally get to the last page of the newspaper.
Obituaries. My chest tightens and my breathing becomes shallow, like I had just run around the block with a leashed and excited Chocolo leading the way — something that was a weekly routine for him and I during these summer months.
In tiny print at the bottom of the page:
Carlos Rodriguez. January 7th, 1976 – August 15th, 2008. Beloved father, son and friend.
The sight of my father’s name made my heart race. What would Mami do?
Instantly, the answer comes to me.
I calmly get up. Put the newspaper where it belongs, next to Mami’s favorite pot of growing sunflower seeds. Before I step inside, out of the corner of my eye, I see the golden plated numbers Papi hand painted, 23, on the front of our house. When I get inside, I put my slippers back on. I lock the front door. I put away my leftoverleft over pan. I wash my plate and cup. I close the door to the backyard so Chocolo won’t chase the birds. I draw the curtains. I blow out the candles. I put more water to boil, just like Mami would. You can never have too much tea, mija. Tea makes la gente feel better.
I wait until the teapot is squirming again.
One last time. I grab two sunflower cups Papi and I got from the local artists market for this past Mother’s Day. Tu mama le encante las girasoles, Papi whispered that morning as if it was a secret no one knew.
Bag of chamomile.
Milk. A splash for me. A tsunami for the other. Honey. Lots of honey.
I don’t bother knocking. I know the door is unlocked.
With a tray that helps me balance the teas, I make my way into my parent’s bedroom. I pray, to the God everyone is always talking about, that I don’t spill everything everywhere. Papi just remodeled these floors after Mami had been begging for him to do it for years. My eyes stay focused on my shaky, tiny hands. They are red from gripping on so tight. This, I can’t mess up and I’m known for my clumsiness.
I place the tray on the night table on Mami’s side of the bed and I crawl in from Papi’s side. The sheets felt cold against my skin, the result of a week’s worth of vacancy.
When I’m settled and ready, I meet her under the covers. Mami has all the windows open and I’m grateful for the bed’s warmth that consumes me. I open my eyes to look at her. As beautiful as ever, tears pour like a steady stream out of her brown eyes. In Mami’s wet eyes, I see my reflection.
She puts her delicate hand against my cheek, the other hand lays on her bump of a belly. I watch her lips tremble slightly and I wait for her to say something. Anything. Mami’s room sits on the second floor, over the front porch. Through the window, I hear Amy’s cries and my mother’s become one: Over futile odds and laughed at by the gods and now the final frame, love is a losing game.